How to Save the Cat! [15 STEPS TO WRITE A NOVEL]

Ollie Ander
Is probably just a couple cats in a trench-coat—the hair shedding and sunlight napping are highly suspect.
Writing an entire novel can be daunting. Luckily, there are countless outlines, templates, and checklists to help you hit those classic novel beats—or at least to point you in the right direction. One of these is Save the Cat!

What is Save the Cat?

Save the Cat! is a story structure and plotting technique, first coined by Blake Snyder, who published his bestselling nonfiction book $ Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need $ in 2005. A decade later, in 2018, Jessica Brody adapted and re-popularized the method among novelists with her book, $ Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing That You’ll Ever Need.$ 
Both Snyder and Brody’s Save the Cat! outlining methods include fifteen "beats" that a story should hit and when it should hit them.

Save the Cat!’s Strengths

Fifteen plot points may sound restrictive, but some writers prefer the more heavily guided approach (compared to the simple Three Act Structure) because it helps navigate the no-man’s-land of their story’s second act and keep a B-Story in mind. That said, the main priority of Save the Cat! is to enable writers in constructing a compelling protagonist—one that readers would like to see "saved" by the end—and ensure that your story is engaging, every step (or "beat") of the way.
If that sounds appealing to you and you’d like to learn more about Save the Cat!, this blog post will give an overview of each of the steps and provide some tips for applying them to your own unique story!
Tip: This method’s progression is not linear (well, it is a very wavy line). Some plot points are meant to be introduced during another. Read all the way through and familiarize yourself with the flow before trying to plug your story into the system.

Save the Cat!’s Characters

Save the Cat! is a character-focused plotting method. That doesn’t mean you can’t have multiple POVs in your novel, all making the same level of progression in different ways, but it is essentially written to help you plot one protagonist—The hero of your story.
That’s why the beat sheet is sometimes referred to as the Transformation Sheet. Once you’ve run your character through Save the Cat!, they should be distinctly different by the end ("after"), from the character we see them as at the start of the story ("before").
Before getting into the beats you’ll be expected to hit with your character throughout the story, you should familiarize yourself with your hero’s main Problem, Want, and Need. These are the key elements to keep in mind.
When your protagonist is faced with a life-affecting problem, they will initially try to solve it incorrectly because they are pursuing that solution through their want. That’s your A-Story—the external struggle. Your B-Story revolves around your hero realizing their need—the internal struggle—which should be the true solution to their problem, and result in them changing as a character.

Save the Cat! Beat Summaries

Here are the story beats as described in Save the Cat!

Act One

1. Opening Image
The Opening Image is immediate—the first 1% of your story. This moment is also commonly referred to as a "snapshot" of your character, their world, and their unique situation. Construct a strong and engaging scene to hook readers, as well as highlight the tone of your story.
Tip: It is difficult to navigate introducing a whole new world, so be wary to avoid "info dumping" or excessive exposition. All good things come to those who wait!
2. State the Theme
Work to establish the theme of your story by the 5% mark. The theme acts as a sort of foreshadow for what your protagonist will have to overcome later on, aka the need your protagonist must fill; a lesson they will have to learn. This wisdom should be understood by the reader but remain as something that your characters must struggle to achieve.
3. Setup
The Setup should not be considered the third step to hit, as you will be developing it over the course of the first 10% of the story. Build on the Opening Image and the Theme to develop a deeper understanding of your hero’s world and their place in it. This is often referred to as "establishing the status quo" (Brody, 2018).
Tip: This is the best place to expand on your character’s flaws and why their want blinds them to their need.
4. Catalyst
Once everything is nicely set up—at roughly 10% into your story—your protagonist should experience the inciting incident. This is a major plot point (generally referred to in all story structures) when your hero will be sent on their journey, spurred by some life-altering event (and consequently, why your character’s old life must change).
Tip: As much as you need to hook your readers on the opening pages, your catalyst should further hook them into wanting to find out the outcome of your hero’s predicament. They should be excited to see what happens to your character next because they’re already invested and like them from the Setup.
5. Debate
From the Catalyst (10%) to the 20% mark, you should offer your readers a Debate. Go over your protagonist's options: are there any options available to them other than whatever change the Catalyst demands? The Debate should end with answering what your character thinks they need to do, and why they’ve chosen to do it.
Tip: This can be internal to your character, or external and involve opinions of other characters. If your story is central to a family/group dynamic, letting other characters express differing opinions to your protagonist is a great way to offer nuance on the situation they are facing.

Act Two

6. Break into (Act) Two
This beat is exactly what it is called: at 30% into the story, you’ll be entering Act Two. If Act One is a presentation of your hero in their old life, Act Two is a foray into the possibilities of their new life; new world! The different setting and dynamic introduced in Act Two by Save the Cat! is also referred to as entering the "upside-down world" (Brody, 2018), although that could be literal or metaphorical.
Tip: This is still only the first third of your story. Keep in mind that as much as your character will be introduced to new things that reshape their potential, they must continue to approach the solution to their ultimate problem misguidedly. There’s nothing endearing about instantly solving one’s problems.
7. B Story
The B-story (subplot) should be introduced early on at 22%, as you break into Act Two—if not earlier.
This usually takes the form of introducing a new character who will help your protagonist on their journey and through their eventual transformation. They could be a love interest, enemy, mentor figure, family member, new friend, or anyone else—these are just helpful suggestions. Regardless of who you choose to introduce, this new character should be representative of the new world/paradigm introduced in Act Two and help guide the hero toward fulfilling their need.
Tip: Despite their inherent connectedness to the new elements you introduce in Act Two, you do not need to have this B-Story character absent from Act One. You can always re-contextualize them!
8. Fun & Games
The Fun & Games section should stretch from the 20% to 50% of your story. Depending on the genre you’re writing in, this could be contrary to the title, as your protagonist may be having very little fun.
Every genre will approach this section differently. A detective character will spend this time investigating and accumulating clues. A fantasy hero will go on some side quests. This expanse of time is where you should endeavor to deliver on the premise you promised your reader when they picked up your book.
9. Midpoint (Literally)
At halfway through your story (50%), the Fun & Games should result in a plot-affecting outcome. The three results you should endeavor to achieve at this turn-of-direction are: the hero experiencing a false victory/defeat, the stakes being raised, and a notable intersection between the A-Story and B-Story.
For the false victory or false defeat, the one you pick should run in contrast to the tone of the progression your character had during their Fun & Games. For example, if they’re having a good time, ruin it. If they’re having a bad time, give them hope! (... just to send them back into despair again in the next two beats).
After all that Fun & Games, it’s important to re-introduce tension to keep the readers’ invested. Raising the stakes for your character at this point in the story should cause distress for all parties involved (in a good way)
Due to both of the aforementioned Midpoint moments, the B-Story should show itself in the protagonist’s awareness, shifting their attention from their obsessive fixation on their want → to their need (which is the true solution).
10. Bad Guys Close In
Regardless of whether your protagonist experienced a false victory or defeat at their Midpoint, the falseness of that is to be exposed in this section where the Bad Guys Close In (the 50-75% of your story). Whether they have been winning or losing in fulfilling their want, this should lead them the furthest they’ve ever been from confronting their need. If before the Midpoint was Fun & Games, by comparison, this could also be considered The Struggle.
11. All is Lost (almost)
The darkest point in your story should be right at the end of the Bad Guys Close In (75%). Your story’s intensity should have continued to increase up until this point—both externally in what’s happening around your protagonist as they pursue their want, and internally, in them being unable to address their true need. If your A-Story and B-Story have been escalating in tandem, they should culminate in a situation which will force your character to finally have to switch gears—to pursue their need over their want.
But, as you can imagine, going against everything you’ve done throughout your life up until one critical moment isn’t exactly easy. Which leads us to:
12. Dark Night of the Soul
Just as The Catalyst resulted in the Debate, All is Lost leads into Dark Night of the Soul. This beat will go from the 75-80% mark of your story, and it is composed of your protagonist wallowing in their perceived misfortune.
I know it sounds dramatic, but you’re the one that raised the stakes! What do you want them to be—happy about it? In this section of the story, your hero should be notably worse off than when we saw them in the Opening Image.
Regardless of how your protagonist goes about exploring their external vs internal conflict, Dark Night of the Soul should result in them accepting the pursuit of their need (and recognizing how misguided they were in what they’d previously wanted). 

Act Three

13. Break Into (Act) Three
In Dark Night of the Soul, your protagonist has realized what needs to be done! As you have them Break Into (Act) Three at 80% into your story, your protagonist should take action in a way that addresses their need over their want, concluding the B-Story line. Now that your character truly understands their flaws and what’s held them back up until this point, they can finally fix the problem before them.
14. Finale
The Finale is your character's actionable response after Break(ing) Into (Act) Three. Now that they know what to do/ how to solve the problem, it should take up the near-to-last 80-99% of your story.
Brody breaks the Finale into 5 more digestible parts:
Gather the Team—Even the most impressive protagonist may need help from other characters. Whether it’s mending burned bridges or building new ones, this is the moment to bring together the forces your character needs to claim their desired ending.
Execute the Plan—Now that you have a plan and have gathered the necessary resources, this is the moment it all comes together.
The High Tower Surprise—Plot twist; plain and simple. Make the most unaccounted for (but hopefully believable) thing happen that could foil your protagonist’s plan. This is an inherent means to raise the stakes one last time: there’s nothing more stressful than a perfect plan hitting a snag!
Tip: This plot twist could make or break the reception of your ending. Don’t force something that will undermine your story or character’s development thus far.
Dig Deep Down—After the High Town Surprise, your character will be left face-to-face with the problem they’ve been unable to solve this entire time. This may come to a resolution after some reflection, or it may happen naturally as their new, learned approach—based on their need as they broke Into (Act) Three—comes into play. Whatever has been holding them back and caused their life’s great problem is no longer an obstacle!
Execute the New PlanThe hero comes up with a new plan on the spot, thanks to the paradigm they’ve developed over the course of the story. This results in a victory, fulfilling for both the character and the reader! The problem introduced in the Theme and Setup is now finally solved.
Tip: If you’re writing a tragedy… I’d consider trying a different story structure.
15. Final Image
The Final Image is a mirror to the Opening Image. In the last glimpse of your story—the final 1%—be sure to capture your character in a way that displays how they’ve grown since the beginning.
Tip: This can also include the ways the world has changed because of their actions!
Many writers swear by Save the Cat! It’s assisted innumerable writers in developing their characters and tracking their plot progression. That said, if you’ve gotten to the end of this and Save the Cat! doesn’t quite feel right for you and your story, there are lots of other plotting structures out there!
If you like to work with your ideas in a more spread-out fashion than something linear, you can read about $ How to Use the Snowflake Method to Write Your Novel$  and see if that’s a more natural fit!
Brody, J. (2018). Save the Cat! writes a novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. Ten Speed Press.
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